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Meet... Jane Duffus

Author of 'The Women Who Built Bristol', 'The What the Frock! Book of Funny Women' and more, Jane is also a journalist, ultrarunner, Bristol Women's Voice trustee and women’s comedy promoter.

Q: What prompted you to write 'The Women who built Bristol'?

My background is in print journalism and I worked in London for a long time on newsstand lifestyle magazines. I had always had an interest in women, the arts and generally writing about women doing interesting and creative stuff. I’ve always written. And then, when I moved to Bristol about 10 years ago, I wanted to know more about the city but when I visited the local museums I was really struck that pretty much everything I'd see was about men's history and  that irked me. It was the same reason why I started What the Frock! Comedy in 2012 (promoting talented female comedians). I had no particular interest in comedy at the time, and I certainly didn't intend to start a comedy events business, but it really pissed me off that if I wanted to go to a comedy night, I could pretty much only see men.  So I thought “I’m going to have to do something about this”. It was meant to be a one-off event but then that spiralled and What the Frock! grew out of not being able to see women comedians.

Similarly, this book spiralled out of me asking “where are the women in Bristol's history?” There are tons of books about the history of Bristol but they rarely feature women. There was one book published a few years ago about significant people from Bristol's history and I looked through it and… remember, this book is not insubstantial in size… and there are three women in the entire book! That really hacked me off. So that's where my book came from, it came from frustration. I wanted to know why people were not including women in their histories of Bristol. And it turns out there was no good reason why women were being left out of the history books.

I'd become very interested in the suffrage movement around eight years ago and, because of where I was living, I was curious about the suffragists and suffragettes in the South West, not just Bristol but the South West generally. And I really wanted to do a book about that. But then Lucienne Boyce's book came out (‘The Bristol Suffragettes’) and so there was not a lot of point  in me repeating her work. But I had a lot of suffrage stuff written up already which is why there's quite a heavy suffragette/suffragist weighting to the women in ‘The Women Who Built Bristol’. Another book that came out a few years ago is by a university professor called Madge Dresser called ‘Women in the City’, and that covers hundreds of years of Bristol’s history.

But what I wanted to do was write a book that was accessible to anyone and since I come from a lifestyle journalism background, ‘The Women Who Built Bristol’ is written, I hope, in quite a light and accessible tone. You don't need to know anything about these women to understand their stories.  You don't need to have pre-existing knowledge of the WSPU or unionisation or anything else in order to understand what that organisation was, because it's explained to you. I thought it was really important to write a fun, lively and inclusive book about women’s history that would hopefully appeal to readers from all backgrounds, regardless of their education.

Q: Who is your favourite woman that you discovered while you were doing the research?

There are probably two key favourites right now but, as there are 251 women profiled in the book, it really depends what mood I’m in when you ask me!

One is a woman called Frances Power Cobbe who was just extraordinary but it worries me how many people have never heard of her. She was just fantastic. She was born in Dublin in the early 1800s and she came to Bristol when she was 15 with one of her older brothers who was studying at one of the posh boys’ schools. And just her entrance into Bristol was really amazing because, at that point, the Clifton Suspension Bridge wasn't built. They'd started building the structures at each end but there was no bridge bit in the middle. But Frances and her brother needed to get from one side to the other and, to do this, they got in a basket, a bit like a hot air balloon basket, and they were winched across on ropes and pulleys. I found this interview with Frances in the Western Daily Press when she was about 80 and she recounts this story and she says, “Oh, we bribed someone to get from one side to the other, we were winched across and it was great fun!” That really sums up the attitude of this woman. She really was a brave woman.

Frances was exiled from the family by her very religious father after she declared religion to be a load of nonsense, which horrified him. There were a number of things she did… She worked with the reformer Mary Carpenter, who set up the Red Lodge reformatory school on Park Row for girls from underprivileged backgrounds. There's a story that Frances left the Red Lodge because she wanted to have a relationship with Mary, but Mary couldn't offer the kind of intimacy that Frances was after. But later Frances had a relationship with a female sculptor and they were together for about 40 years until their deaths. So I don't think she was unhappy romantically.

She was also a journalist and wrote prolifically in favour of women's education. At that point women could attend some universities and they could sit some exit exams but they couldn't actually graduate. But thanks to the tireless work of Frances, women could graduate. She was a huge animal rights campaigner and anti-vivisectionist, and she founded animal rights societies that still exist today. She was also ultimately a suffrage campaigner. She was friends with everybody from Florence Nightingale to Millicent Fawcett and Josephine Butler, all these strong women. She had a huge impact. Absolutely amazing, she was also a big dog lover - we have so much in common!

Another woman who I really love from the book is a woman called Amelia Edwards who was an explorer. In Victorian times, single ladies didn't travel. They perhaps went to Italy or France, somewhere genteel, but they didn't go on their own, they went with a chaperone. But Amelia did. She went on her own to Egypt and became an Egyptologist, and not only was she a woman who went to Egypt when women didn't go to Egypt but she also wrote a very famous book about it (‘A Thousand Miles up the Nile’). It's still in print now and it's one of the first examples of women's travel writing. She was also one of the founders of the Egyptian Exploration Society, which still exists now.

She was very worried about the way the Egyptian antiquities were not being preserved, not being respected or looked after. So she took anything that she could back to her home  - not for herself but to store until she could get them into a museum or somewhere else to be preserved. I found this wonderful article that she wrote for Arena magazine in the 1890s, ‘My Home Life’, where she's describing what her house is like, which in itself is absolutely fascinating. There's a lovely quote where she talks about these things she has, including mummified Egyptian hands behind the  books and a baby's foot and so on. There was an urban myth going around that she had an Egyptian mummy in her wardrobe but what she actually had was two mummified heads in her wardrobe!

Even her grave is interesting. Like Frances, Amelia was a lesbian and she had a long relationship with a woman and they are buried together. Her partner died before she did, so Amelia commissioned this very elaborate Egyptian tomb and they're now buried together.

[The tomb is a Grade II listed structure in St Mary's Henbury Parish, Bristol. Details about it and more about Amelia in this Historic England article].

Q: What centenary activities are you involved with or excited about?

I'm a trustee at the charity Bristol Women's Voice and we received GEO (Government Equalities Office) funding to be a Centenary City. So on February 6th, the anniversary, we had an amazing suffrage lantern parade in Bristol that was phenomenal. We had over a thousand people attend despite the horrible weather, but all sorts of people turned up, including loads of children who had made these lovely candle-lit lanterns with slogans, and a lot of people were dressed up. We had huge puppets leading the way... it was just brilliant. So that was something I was proud to be involved with, it was such a special evening. But there are events all through the year, a whole rolling programme of events.

Q: What do you think the suffragists would think about where we are now, after 100 years of some women having the vote?

Well, suffrage wasn't a one-cause campaign. Although they're often tagged as just about being about Votes for Women it was really about so much more. It was about better working conditions for women, it was about women being seen as the guardians of their own children if the marriage broke up, it was about everything... about women having a say in decisions affecting them.

But I think they'd probably be quite frustrated. In some ways, 100 years of having the vote sounds like a long time but in the big scheme of history it’s nothing. Given the speed of change generally, we should have been able to make more headway against the patriarchy than we have done in the past century.  If you think of the 1970s and the second wave of feminism, they had seven key demands and as yet society still hasn’t met those seven key demands: we don't have easy access to abortion, we don't have free childcare, we certainly don’t live free of gender based harassment. We don't have any of those things that they campaigned for in the 1970s, so there's still so much to do. If you just look at how heavily weighed down by men Parliament is… there are more men called John in Parliament then there are women.

So I think the suffragists would feel a little bit frustrated by society in 2018. And I wouldn’t blame them.

Q: In 2028, that will be the 100 year anniversary of all women getting the vote - what would you like to see achieved in the next 10 years before that centenary?

Flippantly, I think we can get 50:50 representation of women in Parliament. All that needs to happen is women need to vote for women. And if women vote for women, then more women will be put forward, we will get women into Parliament, who can work on issues that affect women and, flippantly, it's as simple as that. There’s a great quote from the comedian Kate Smurthwaite who’s joking about how quickly we could fix the patriarchy if only women pulled together. She says: “There are 3.5bn of us women, so if we all chip in it shouldn’t take too long.” And although she’s making a joke, she’s also absolutely correct. Women need to work together. But there are so many women who think that politics doesn’t apply to them, and that’s one of the things that Bristol Women’s Voice is seeking to address in this centenary year and we have events coming up throughout the year to try and reach those women and let them know that politics very definitely does include them.

Jane's book is full of fascinating stories about intriguing women and I have especially enjoyed their brilliant names. I mean how could you not want to read about Fanny Fust, Gladys Hazel, Clara Butt and Princess Caraboo? As well as the striking front cover it is beautifully illustrated throughout.

Please buy direct from Bristol Women’s Voice, as this is the only way that the charity receives the money from sales. Copies bought via Amazon, Waterstones etc only benefit those organisations. Buy direct here.


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